October 1, 2021 Author: Matthew Renze

What do you need to know to succeed in college?

Over the past 25 years, I’ve completed two bachelor’s degrees, three associate degrees, one minor, and a post-graduate specialization.

As a result, I feel like I’ve learned a thing or two about how to succeed with higher education.

This fall, I returned to college to begin working on my Master’s degree in AI at Johns Hopkins University.

So, I thought it might be a good time to document the most important lessons that I’ve learned from my many years of higher education.

To help you succeed in college, below are my top 10 recommendations for getting the most out of your college education.

1. Sit Front and Center in Every Class

I’ve seen several studies over the years that show that students who sit in the front row and center of the classroom have much better educational outcomes than students who sit further back in class. These students have higher test scores, better content retention, more active engagement, etc.

It’s much easier to pay attention and avoid distractions when you’re making direct eye contact with your professors. In addition, professors that see you and interact with you each day are much more likely to help you out if you’re ever in a bind. Also, you’ll make friends with the other smart students sitting in the front of the class.

For the first week of classes, show up a bit early each day and grab the seat that is in the front row and very center of the classroom. After just a few days of competing for the best seats in the house, most people will just continue sitting in their usual seats every day and you won’t have to show up early to get the good seats.

Honestly, it can feel a bit uncomfortable for the first few days, but it’s seriously the easiest way to get the most out of your college education. In fact, if you only do one thing from this entire list of advice, I recommend you do this!

2. Don’t Skip Classes Unless It’s Actually Necessary

Students that skip even a few days of classes each semester do significantly worse than students that attend every class. Skipping class because you’re tired, hungover, running late, or you’d rather do something more fun is a bad idea and a dangerous trap to fall into.

For example, during my first year in college, I started to run late for one of my classes on a regular basis. Rather than risk the embarrassment of walking into class late, I decided to just skip the class altogether on those tardy days. However, in hindsight, this was a big mistake.

Those missed days added up pretty fast, and unfortunately, my grades at the end of the year suffered heavily as a result. Knowing what I know now, if I had to do it all over again, I would honestly suffer the embarrassment of walking into class late every day rather than skip even a single class.

Obviously, there are legitimate reasons for missing class. For example, if you’re really sick, possibly contagious, or have a family emergency. If this happens, give your professor as much advanced notice as possible. They will work with you if you’re proactive. However, they can be quite unforgiving, compared to high school teachers, if you’re not.

3. Double Major or Minor in a Field that Adds Unique Value to Your Primary Degree

Some of the most lucrative and exciting career opportunities exist at the intersection of two independent fields of study. For example, Computer Science + Neuroscience = Artificial Intelligence, Computers + Psychology = Human-Computer Interaction (HCI), Genetics + Statistics = Computational Genomics, etc.

When you’re looking for a second major or a minor, look for fields of study that will add unique value to your primary degree. As a result, once you enter the workforce, your skills will likely be more valuable to employers because of your unique specialization. In addition, your additional skillset will help set you apart from the rest of the competition.

For example, in addition to my Computer Science degree, I also chose to get a second degree in Philosophy and a minor in Economics. The rare combination of these three areas of study has been a huge benefit to my career and has set me apart from those that only completed a single CS degree.

In fact, a large portion of my success in the tech industry, beyond my Computer Science skills, is a result of my Philosophy degree and my Economics minor. This additional skill set allows me to think critically, evaluate competing ideas, make rational decisions, and communicate effectively in the language of business (i.e. the language of Economics). This is a rare and highly valuable combination of skills in the IT industry.

4. Focus on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics

When it comes to long-term career outcomes, degrees with a STEM core (i.e. Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) are by far the best investment for your education. This is because the modern world is essentially built on a foundation of STEM principles.

How far you go with STEM subjects is one of the best predictors of long-term career outcomes (e.g. lifetime income, job satisfaction, employability, smaller gender-based wage gap, etc.). So, if you build on top of a STEM core, you’ll likely do well no matter what career path you choose.

Even if you decide to go into a purely non-technical profession, a STEM education is the foundation of everything you will do professionally. Take the medical profession, for example. Medicine is an abstraction of Biology; Biology is an abstraction of Chemistry; Chemistry is an abstraction of Physics; Physics is an abstraction of Mathematics; and Mathematics is an abstraction of Logic – which is a branch of Philosophy.

5. Take a Few Electives to Broaden Your Horizons

When you get a chance to take elective courses, I recommend taking a few introductory courses in Liberal Arts and Sciences to broaden your horizons. Courses in liberal arts and sciences teach you how to think critically, communicate effectively, and appreciate the fine arts.

The top three introductory courses that I recommend are: Intro to Psychology, Intro to Economics, and Intro to Philosophy. These three classes will totally open your eyes to how the world actually works. You’ll understand why people behave the way they do, why the world functions the way it does, and how we know what we think we know.

Try to take them as early as possible, because they may very likely change your entire view of the world in pretty fundamental ways. In fact, it’s quite likely that these courses could completely alter your direction in college and your career path. I’ve heard many people say similar things over the years.

As soon as I learned that people, our society, and the entire world ran on a set of (generally predictable) rules, it fundamentally changed my whole outlook on life. It meant that I could learn how these rules operate, predict behaviors, and (potentially) control their outcomes. It’s a really powerful domain of knowledge and only a few people ever take the time to learn about it.

6. Don’t Get Discouraged by the “Weed Out” Classes

Every university has a few courses called “weed-out classes” that are specifically designed to test your limits. They are typically freshman- and sophomore-level core classes common to multiple degree programs. For example, Calculus I, Classical Physics, Organic Chemistry, etc.

The tests are ridiculously tough – it will be impossible to ace them. In addition, the grading scale is heavily skewed to make you feel like you’re not smart enough to pass the course. These courses are intentionally designed this way to see who has the mental and emotional resilience to persevere during difficult times – especially people who are used to getting easy A’s in high school.

For example, I took a freshman Calculus class where it looked like I was only getting a “C-” the whole semester, and I was seriously considering dropping the course before the cutoff date. However, I pushed through, and at the end of the semester, I ended up with an “A-” after they finished curving the grades.

This sounds like a cruel and unethical thing to do to first-year students. However, the sad fact is that many Freshmen will never make it to the end of their chosen 4-year program no matter how smart they are. So, it’s best to weed them out early on while the cost to the university (and the student) is still low.

So, try to identify the weed-out classes ahead of time to prepare yourself for them. Then, just do our best, don’t get too discouraged, and most importantly, no matter what happens, don’t give up!

7. Make Friends with People That Are Different from You

College is a time when you will grow significantly in terms of personal development and your worldview. A lot of this personal growth comes from spending time with people that are very different from you — people that come from other backgrounds and worldviews.

Our initial inclination in unfamiliar situations, like college, is to seek out people that are most similar to us, because it feels safer. While this is a good strategy for high school, it’s not a great strategy for college. In college, being different is much more valuable than being the same as everyone else.

So, you want to surround yourself with people that will challenge you to grow as a person and expand your view of the world. Make friends with people that are different from you — people that are different in terms of their nationality, race, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, political views, etc.

Learn about their culture, their customs, their religious beliefs, their points of view, their music, and their food – which is amazing! You’ll be surprised how much more there is to the world outside our little culture bubbles. In addition, it will help you to empathize with other people and their unique struggles.

8. Stay in Touch with the People Who Matter the Most

If you want to remain friends with anyone that you are currently friends with from high school, it is imperative that you stay in touch and visit with them at least a few times while you’re both still in college. If you don’t, it will be surprisingly difficult and awkward to reconnect with them after college.

One of my mentors in high school gave me this advice right before I went off to college. As a result, I made an intentional effort to keep in touch with several of my high school friends who moved away for college – and I’m very glad I did!

To this day, we are all still really good friends, and it’s practically effortless to reconnect with them whenever we get together. However, the people that I didn’t make an effort to stay in touch with during college, I hardly ever hear from anymore, and when I do, it just feels awkward and uncomfortable.

However, it’s important to note that not all friendships are meant to last forever. In fact, some of your old friendships will no longer suit you after college and are much better off being left in the past. Surround yourself with friends that make you a better person, and gently let go of anyone that holds you back.

9. Have Fun but Be Smart and Safe About It

The Amish have a rite of passage into adulthood called “Rumspringa”. However, the rest of the world has a similar tradition we call “College”. We, as a society, give college students a period of time to explore and experiment without having to adhere to all of the normal societal rules that we impose on the rest of the children and adults.

There are still laws that everyone has to follow, but the social norms are significantly relaxed for students in college. However, once you leave college, you’ll be subject to all of the same social norms as the rest of us adults. So, be sure that you use this time to explore the world of possibilities, to grow as a person, and to figure out who you want to become as an adult.

However, you need to be smart about how you use this freedom. Unfortunately, I’ve known too many people who have completely destroyed their lives during this rite of passage by becoming addicted to drugs, becoming victims of sexual assault, racking up massive credit card debt, etc.

Sadly, by the time you finish college, you’re going to know several friends who got stuck in some of these same life-altering traps too. Please don’t be one of them – be smart and be safe while you’re having fun.

10. If You Need Any Advice or Help, Just Ask for It

Colleges have a variety of services designed to help you out when you’re in need. However, most students don’t know that these services exist or are too embarrassed or too “proud” to ask for help. If you need help with something, just ask for it. That’s what these student-assistance services are here for.

For example, I joined a study group when I was struggling to learn Latin, I got free tutoring for the difficult parts of Physics, and I attended every pre-test prep session for Calculus. I also learned how to meditate for stress management through my university’s bio-feedback program. There’s nothing wrong with getting a little extra help when you need it – especially during something as difficult as college.

I also made friends with my college guidance counselor and several of my professors. As a result, they were much more willing to answer questions or help me out when I was in a bind. Seriously, they can be some of your best allies when you need them – so always treat them with the respect they deserve.

Best of luck to you during your college experience!

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